Think you need an LMS? Think again.

April 8, 2021

When it comes to solving the store execution issue, a Learning Management System is only one piece of the puzzle.

In retail, Learning and Development is about teaching your employees skills and concepts that they can apply in the jobs they have today and in the future. One of the ways many retailers try to tackle L&D at scale is by implementing a Learning Management Solution, or LMS. 

At its core, an LMS is a platform built to create and manage eLearning courses – anything from onboarding courses to job-specific trainings. LMS solutions are tailored specifically to an individual employee’s learning needs, and usually made up of dozens (or hundreds!) of courses, learning pathways, and materials. An LMS has the ability to track an employee’s progress against a learning objective, test their knowledge at regular intervals, and report results up the chain. And, yes, many of today’s LMS systems do this in a fun game-ified way (points and badges, anyone?). With the recent emergence of cloud technology, a sizable shift to a remote-work environment, and more shifting policies and procedures than ever before, it seems like Learning Management Solutions are having a bit of a moment.

When it comes to implementing an LMS, a retailer’s underlying motivation is always sound: They want to share essential knowledge with their teams, and in turn they want the confidence that their investment is driving business results. But too often I see retailers narrowly focused on trainings and courseload, so much so that they miss the bigger picture at play – the importance of a solid communications infrastructure on which to build that LMS capability.

At Retail Zipline, we’re focused on improving store execution through better communication – essentially, a much broader scope than simply delivering eLearnings. It’s why when clients come to us asking about our “LMS” capabilities, our first response is simple: “we’re not an LMS.” We don’t leave the conversation there, though, because I’ve found probing just a bit deeper can be incredibly enlightening. 

When on the hunt for an LMS, a lot of retailers are actually attacking the symptom of larger, gnarlier problems: a lack of a single source of truth, a lack of company alignment, a lack of accountability. These are all common issues in retail, where geographically dispersed teams need to execute against a common goal, and consistency and repeatability is essential. They’re also issues that an LMS can’t solve on its own. Instead, they require a comprehensive, holistic approach driven by better communication.

An LMS doesn’t centralize all the information.

Ever heard your field teams complain that “information is all over the place”? An LMS won’t necessarily fix this issue. Yes, you can easily corral your training modules and scorecards into one central platform, but where does all the other information go? An LMS doesn’t eliminate constant pings from a District Manager, emails from Corporate, visual set up guide updates, tasks related to urgent recalls… And we know – when it comes to the myriad of things a store leader has to deal with each day, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most retail teams are suffering from information overload. In fact, the lack of knowledge and training you may very well be trying to mitigate with the launch of an LMS may actually be a byproduct of teams feeling like they’re “drinking from a firehose.” If you don’t first slow down that firehose of information, no one will be able to take the LMS training in the first place.

LMS content is also focused on the individual, which means it inherently requires more capacity and attention (i.e. brain space!). Training in an LMS isn’t like other store-level tasks. Unlike merchandising an endcap or tidying a fitting room, an eLearning isn’t something you can “hand off” to a teammate to cover when you’re out sick or feeling overwhelmed. It requires a high level of attention and mindspace to truly digest what’s being taught, and then apply it to your own behavior. In order to become highly effective learners, your employees need to be able to clear the clutter – literally and figuratively – that gets in the way of them operating at a deeper level.

Before rolling out a formalized training platform, take stock of your current communications channels. Are there too many of them? Are some redundant or overwhelming? Are you implementing intent-based communication channels that help your teams understand where to go for what, and when? Taking steps like this first won’t just lay the foundation for more effective training, it’ll help your teams better execute in the field.

An LMS doesn’t help your team prioritize.

Is an e-learning in an LMS necessarily more important than an email from a DM? Is an incomplete module in an LMS first priority on any given day? What if there’s a critical event in store, a technology roll-out, or a product launch? Where does learning & development fall on the spectrum of importance from day to day? 

In today’s retail environment, priorities can shift daily. It’s no secret that COVID has changed how customers shop. Delivering a seamless, omni-channel experience is a baseline expectation, and in order to stay agile, more and more brands are rethinking how to optimize their physical stores through programs like ship from store, curbside pick up, clienteling, dark stores, pop-ups, and more.

Every single one of these new initiatives requires specialized on-the-job training – the likes of which could easily be deployed via an LMS. But without the proper context that helps teams understand why they need to take that training in the first place, the likelihood that they’ll even complete it is far less. If store leaders don’t (or can’t) understand why they’re being asked to complete an eLearning course, they’re far less likely to actually do it. At Zipline, we know this to be true: It’s not enough to just instruct stores to “do the thing” — you also have to tell them why it’s important so they can allocate the right resources and carry out your instructions with care.

For example: Launching a curbside pick-up capability in stores requires a massive amount of coordination. One piece is training, sure, but there are dozens of other pieces of the puzzle that need to be executed in order to bring that capability to life for customers. Signage needs to be received and set. Merchandise needs to be processed in a certain way. Associates need to be able to speak to customers about the benefits of the program. And so on. This information – the type that exists outside of an eLearning – needs to live somewhere centrally accessible so your employees can then approach their LMS training with the proper context.

On the list of critical capabilities that retailers need to thrive in today’s environment, store execution is at the top. It’s not enough to just understand how to execute curbside pickup; If teams don’t know how to market it, when it’s launching, or when to pull it back if there’s an issue, you’re in deep trouble organizationally. This is why baseline communication is so important. Retailers need a more holistic way to run their business – an LMS is just one part of that.

An LMS doesn’t hold the right people accountable.

“What?” you say. “But an LMS is all about enabling accountability! What about tests, quizzes, scores, learning pathways, badges? What about reminder pings and those ‘past due’ notifications?” 

Sure, an LMS is tailor-made to hold individuals accountable for their own learning performance, but too often that’s where the accountability ends. And in retail, that’s a huge problem.

Think about it: there are rarely enough hours in a single shift for a store leader to accomplish everything they need to do to keep customers (and corporate) satisfied. As payroll tightens and expectations soar, store teams are forced to do more with less. And this means some tasks may need to be put on the back burner. So, what’s the first thing to fall through the cracks? The stuff your boss doesn’t care about. 

Many well-meaning retailers push eLearnings and training modules down from HQ to individual store associates, hoping they’ll complete them correctly and on-time. However, these retailers forget a major piece of the puzzle: the upper field. District managers (DM), regional directors, and other multi unit leaders are often “leapfrogged” by traditional HQ to store communication methods (including certain LMS platforms) and are left in the dark when it comes to what’s expected of their stores.

And if you’re a store manager and your DM doesn’t know there’s an eLearning, chances are you’re not going to bother actually doing it.

Too often we see retailers roll out a new LMS to stores without engaging the upper field as part of the plan. Unless these leaders are also expected to take the same trainings and log into the same platform, you need to proactively think through how they’ll play a role in holding their teams accountable. Will following up on a past due eLearning be part of an ongoing store visit routine? How will DMs be held accountable for their stores’ performance? 

This is another place where a comprehensive communications platform can play a key role. If upper field leaders and store employees are both accessing eLearnings first through the same central messaging/task management platform, they’re automatically on the same page. They understand how to prioritize the asks coming from HQ together. 

An LMS can be a terrific asset to a company that’s looking to deliver specialized, effective training at scale. But to be effective, it can’t exist without a solid foundation of efficient store communication beneath it. Throwing a learning management system at a misaligned, overwhelmed fleet of stores is like attacking the symptom, instead of the disease. To truly reap the benefits of interactive quizzes, gamified experiences, badges, pathways, and all those other LMS buzzwords, you’re going to need strong communication at the core.


If you’d like to learn how Retail Zipline can cut through the noise, align your field teams, and better hold leaders accountable through improved communication and task management, please reach out. We’d love to hear from you.


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